How to Treat Running Injuries


Some minor running injuries are treatable, but pay attention to pain and know when to see a doctor.
Some minor running injuries are treatable, but pay attention to pain and know when to see a doctor.
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The recent influx of super gyms, high-tech treadmills and yearlong marathons reveals an expanding segment of society that lives to run. Whether runners squeeze in a jog outdoors before work or rack up several miles at a whim, running is no longer an adaptation for survival; it's an activity of health, leisure and well-being. The health effects of running and exercise in general are long-lasting, and they're becoming more public with research and media coverage. But what about the drawbacks?

This form of exercise isn't always a walk -- or run -- in the park. Running injuries hinder veteran runners as well as beginners. Most injuries occur around the foot, ankle, lower leg, knee and hip areas. Though there's overlap in treating these ailments, getting back on the track depends on many factors, including the severity of the injury, age, nutrition, biomechanics and the strength of muscles in other areas of the body.

Even considering these factors, all running injuries have one thing in common: pain or some level of discomfort. The prevailing phrase "No pain, no gain" should not be taken literally while exercising. Physical activity often requires you to push your body to its limits -- but not to the point of pain. Your body is adept at signaling when something is wrong, and pain is its language.

So what causes running injuries? Usually, training errors are the top contenders. One estimate states that 60 percent of running injuries are caused by training errors, and some researchers say the percentage is even higher [source: Hreljac]. As one podiatrist notes, people suffer from the "terrible toos … too much, too soon, too often, too fast and too little attention paid to pain" [source: Pribut]. Poor nutrition, incorrect form, lack of stretching and improper footwear can also increase your chances of injury. Fortunately, health experts and researchers are well-equipped to effectively treat these injuries as they arise.

In this article, we'll explore how health care professionals treat running injuries and learn about how to prevent injuries from occurring in the first place. Moving forward, keep in mind that running injuries often stem from problems in your training, biomechanics or anatomy. In the long term, contacting a doctor to find the underlying cause is just as important as receiving treatment.

Let's start by reviewing the process of icing and heating.

Icing and Heating Running Injuries

Let's say you've returned from the doctor's office with directions on how to treat your recent running injury. The note states you should ice the injury to reduce inflammation, but not to apply heat. You wonder: Why ice and not heat?

Since running injuries cause swelling and inflammation of tissues, muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones, the goal is to reduce these symptoms as soon as possible. Luckily, icing the injury is a natural way to cut back inflammation. Heating, on the other hand, is not.

Using ice is recommended for many sports-related injuries, and it's an integral part of the RICE, method: Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation [source: Mayo Clinic Staff]. In addition to reducing inflammation and swelling, gentle ice massages can help relax tight or strained areas. Standard ice packs work well, but be sure to place a damp cloth between your skin and the pack to avoid frost bite. Some running enthusiasts recommend using bags of frozen vegetables, as they're light and flexible enough to ice an area without being cumbersome. Injuries on the plantar area on the foot can be iced and massaged simultaneously by rolling the foot over a frozen water bottle [source: Pribut]. Generally, ice shouldn't be applied for more than 20 minutes at a time.

Applying heat is not recommended for a fresh injury. In fact, it does the opposite of ice -- heat increases blood flow, which worsens inflammation and swelling. Before you write off heat altogether, though, you should consider its use for tight muscles before exercise. Depending on what your doctor says, using heat may be an option to loosen up muscles before workouts. Several companies sell heat pads for orthopedic use, but a wet towel with hot water will suffice, as well. Heating a problem area for a maximum of 20 minutes will make stretching those muscles easier and more productive. Don't apply heat after a workout.

As noted in the RICE method, compression is another well-known treatment for running injuries. Become versed in the art of wrapping injuries next.

Wrapping Running Injuries

Strolling down the medicine aisle of any pharmacy, you'll have no trouble finding tape and wraps for the treatment of sports injuries; however, making proper use of them isn't as easy. For running injuries -- especially those with pain and swelling -- tapes and wraps can be valuable tools for treatment. Here's why: As a response to injury, your body will form an edema, or a patch of fluids near the injured tissue that causes swelling. This rush of fluid impairs healing and can deprive injured cells of oxygen. Compressing the area by wrapping or strapping it will force liquids away from the injury site to surrounding tissue [source: Thielman]. The sooner you compress the injury, the better. If your doctor thinks compression is necessary, he or she will provide more information on how to wrap or tape the injured area.

If your physician advises you to compress your injury, here are some tips to maximize the effectiveness of your wrap:

  • In a general sense, wrapping usually makes use of elastic or non-elastic, cloth-like material, whereas strapping uses tape.
  • Your doctor will determine whether the injured area can still be partially used. If it can, you'll wrap the injury in its functional position, or one that is natural and weight-bearing, but prevents further injury.
  • Start wrapping or strapping at a healthy area (not the injured area). Circle the wrap toward the injured area, but be sure to end it at another uninjured area after covering the injury site.
  • Neatly overlap layers of the wrap to reinforce support.
  • Always discuss wrapping with your physician. You want to do a few practice runs to ensure you're not wrapping too tightly or loosely.

Read how rest can help running injuries on the next page.

How to Treat Running Injuries with Rest

Rest is an extremely important component for the successful treatment of running injuries. In normal resting phases, the body recuperates and remodels itself. But when a runner trains too often or hard, the body doesn't have the time to repair strained tissue or muscle [source: Karas]. Listed as the first component of the RICE method, rest can be described as either "absolute," meaning little activity and no exercise, or "relative," meaning exercise may be possible, but not at the same rate or intensity [source: Pribut].

The road to recovery isn't always an easy trek. It's unreasonable to think that you'll be able to pick up where you left of in your training after a running injury. Runners who want to continue exercise during recovery should talk to their doctors about the possibility of cross-training during relative rest periods. Cross-training may include less strenuous exercises such as light swimming, cycling, running in a pool and other activities. Even if your doctor approves of a run every now and then, the activity should be added to your workout gradually and with care.

In a perfect world, you could prevent running injuries -- or any injuries for that matter -- from happening. Though you can't always control your body's reactions to exercise, these tips could help you prevent an early end to your running season:

  • Stretch before and after exercise. Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds to limber up.
  • Warm up and cool down with a 10 minute speed walk or light jog.
  • Don't rush a workout -- your mind will be elsewhere, limiting your focus on pace or form.
  • Keep a running log -- it'll allow you to document your mileage, running conditions and how you felt after each run.
  • Bring plenty of fluids to drink during breaks.
  • Carry a roll of sports bandage in your pocket if your doctor suggests you tape or wrap an area.
  • Slow down if you feel you're straining a muscle. Stop running if you feel acute pain.
  • Avoid running too often on hills, uneven surfaces or hard asphalt.
  • Change running shoes as needed (usually before 500 miles of use).
  • Give your body the rest it needs between workouts. Don't feel guilty for taking a day off.
  • Stay in touch with your doctor, and don't be afraid to ask questions about your training.

For lots more information about how to treat running injuries, head to the next page.

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Sources

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